19/20 Season: Classics 3 - Frankenstein & Mozart

LINDA ROBBINS COLEMAN
For a Beautiful Land, symphonic poem

Linda Robbins Coleman was born in Des Moines, Iowa. She composed For a Beautiful Land on a commission from the Cedar Rapids Symphony for the centennial of the state of Iowa. It was premiered by that ensemble in April 1996. The score calls for two each of flutes (2nd doubles piccolo), oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and trombones, tuba, timpani and two percussionists: large and small crash cymbals, suspended cymbals, snare drum, orchestra bells, gong, and triangle), strings. Duration is about 12 minutes.

Linda Robbins Coleman is a native of Iowa and has contributed extensively to the musical life of her home state. She graduated from Drake University with a degree in music education. Having realized that she enjoyed composing, she simply began writing music without a formal composition teacher.  She became composer-in-residence and conductor with Drake Theatre from 1977 to 1997, during which time she composed scores for dozens of plays. Essentially self-taught as a composer, she has received more than 80 commissions. She founded the Iowa Composers Forum in 1987 and was its chief administrator for 10 years. Her output includes music of all genres, from chamber compositions to orchestral scores.

Linda Robbins Coleman has provided the following commentary on her work:

For A Beautiful Land was commissioned and premiered by the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra in 1996 as part of the Iowa Sesquicentennial Celebration. It began as an expression of my love of Iowa - its spirit, essence, many beauties, and richness of this land and people both past and present. The music is tonal, rhapsodic and free-flowing, reflecting sights, sounds, memories, and impressions dear to my heart. The sounds of birds are predominant throughout, as is the wind. I tried to capture the openness, the rolling hills, and magnificent spaces of the landscape in the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. As the music flowed from my heart, I realized that this piece was not just about Iowa. It is a song of love to our beautiful planet, nature, and life.

The symphonic poem is in three main sections. It opens with a fanfare introduced by the strings that is answered by the winds and followed by the introduction of the bird songs. This segues into the first main section, a 3/4 waltz, where the melody bounces back and forth from one choir to the other. Within it is hinted my jazz background. After a quiet transition, the next section begins when the 6/8 waltz melody is introduced by a flute duet. The waltz builds and grows until there is an abrupt grand pause. Then the third section begins. This is a restatement of the first fanfare, but now in 6/8, slower, and played by the oboes. The strings interrupt this drunken-sounding revelry with a sensual waltz. All this leads to restatements and developments until the coda rises in one final whirl of activity.

While For a Beautiful Land was written to describe specific images and memories, I choose to keep them to myself, thus enabling the audience to evoke their own memories and feelings when they hear my music.

 

HK Gruber
Frankenstein!! A Pan-Demonium for Chansonnier and Ensemble

Heinz Karl Gruber (who gives his name professionally as HK Gruber, without punctuation, and is widely known by the nickname Nali), was born in Vienna on January 3, 1943. He composed Frankenstein!! (the two explanation points are part of the title) in 1976-77, developing it from an earlier (1971) Frankenstein Suite for voice and ensemble. The full orchestral score to be performed here was completed in Vienna on February 28, 1977, and premiered in Liverpool, England, on November 25, 1979, by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Simon Rattle, with the composer himself as the soloist. The American premiere took place at Tanglewood in the summer of 1980; once again the composer narrated. Gunther Schuller conducted the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra. In addition to the baritone chansonnier (a kind of speaking/singing part), the score calls for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, three horns, trumpet, trombone, tuba, timpani plus two percussionists (playing a wide array of instruments), harp, celesta, and strings. In addition, all the instruments except the strings double on an army of toy instruments. Duration is about 28 minutes.

HK Gruber began with the classic Austrian music education for boys as a member of the Vienna Choir Boys, from age 10 to 14. After that he entered the Vienna Hochschule für Musik and studied composition with Erwin Ratz and Hanns Jelinek. Later he studied privately with Gottfried von Einem. In 1965 he joined with two friends, Kurt Schwertsik and Otto M. Zykan, to organize a series of “Salon Concerts.” The name was intended to signify that they were moving away from the ultra-dissonant avant-garde music that was being promoted in Darmstadt, German in those years. Their work blended elements of popular music as well as experimental music, and the term “salon” hinted at literary elements, too. Literary cabaret has been a significant form of political commentary and satire in Vienna (and elsewhere) for more than a century, going back at least to the young Schoenberg.

The literary aspect of the “Salon Concerts” is mostly owed to the senior member of the avant-garde Vienna Group, the poet H.C. Artmann. Schwertsik composed a set of six “Viennese Songs” in 1968 to Artmann texts. These induced the poet to invite him to set to music his allerleirausch (“all sorts of noise”), which featured spooky, macabre poems in the style of a nursery rhyme. Schertsik passed the offer along to his friend Gruber, who, in 1971, produced a Frankenstein-Suite freely arranged from Schwertsik’s earlier settings. But from 1975-77 Gruber completely recomposed the settings into a much larger work titled Frankenstein!! after the famous figure that appears in the central part of the piece (Nos. 5-7).

Composed at a time when most creative musicians still insisted on using avant-garde techniques with exceptionally demanding dissonances, non-tonal harmonies, and extremely complex rhythms, Gruber introduced a spirit of play (shocking to some listeners),with suggestions of popular music and sounds made by children’s toys. The poems evoke creepy stories such as accounts of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster intermingled with heroes of modern comic books, films, and television (Batman and Robin, Superman, John Wayne, James Bond, and Goldfinger). In most of the early performances, whether in German or English, the poems were recited by the composer himself, in a charmingly macabre way. The work is both serious and light-hearted, often comic in tone. Aside from the playfulness of the satire, it also marked one step in the turn from the intensity of mid-century contemporary music to a much freer approach to modern music at the end of the 20th century.

 

WOLFGANG AMADÈ MOZART
Symphony No. 39 in E‑flat Major, K.543

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777, was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756 and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. His last three symphonies, K. 543, 550, and 551, were all composed during the summer of 1788, probably for a series of subscription concerts that seem not to have taken place. The dates of the first performances are unknown. Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K.543, was completed on June 26, 1788. The score calls for flute, two each of clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. Duration is about 29 minutes.

One of the greatest miracles in the history of music is Mozart’s achievement in the summer of 1788, composing his last three symphonies all in the space of six weeks. The sheer speed is daunting. Even more impressive is the striking variety between the three works, each of which has a character and mood all its own. The first of the three, in E-flat Major, was completed on June 26; we have no record that any of these symphonies was ever performed in Mozart’s lifetime, though he is unlikely to have composed something as elaborate as a symphony (much less three of them) purely “on spec,” and he must have anticipated some concert series on which they would be heard.

By June 1788 Mozart’s fortunes had entered on the long, steady decline that culminated in his death, at age 35, three-and-a-half years later. Gone were the heady days of 1784, when his music was in constant demand in Vienna (during one hectic 11-day period, he gave 10 concerts!) and he was writing a sheaf of piano concertos and other works. Mozart seems to have been the sort of openhanded type who could never stop spending money faster than he earned it, and when the Viennese public found other novelties for amusement, Mozart’s star began to fall.

He had hoped to obtain financial stability through the performances of his operas, but The Marriage of Figaro achieved only nine performances during its season in the repertory (1786), partly, at least, because other, more influentially placed composers had their own fish to fry and were not interested in supporting Mozart. Then came Don Giovanni, composed for the citizens of Prague who had taken Figaro completely to their hearts. Although it was a sensation in Prague in the fall of 1787, the first Vienna performances the following spring did not attract enough attention; the piece was simply too serious to suit the taste of the court.

Neither opera, then, had much improved the Mozart family exchequer, and by early June 1788, only weeks after the Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni, Mozart was forced to write to his friend and fellow Mason, Michael Puchberg, requesting the loan of 100 gulden. Again on June 17 he needed money to pay his landlord and asked Puchberg for a few hundred gulden “until tomorrow.” Yet again on the 27th he wrote to thank Puchberg for the money so freely lent him, but also to report that he needed still more and did not know where to turn for it.

It is clear from these letters that Mozart was in serious financial difficulty (a situation that was only just beginning to change at the time of his death). How astonishing, then, to realize that between the last two letters cited he composed the Symphony No. 39! This, the most lyrical of the final three symphonies, gives no hint of the composer’s distraught condition (thus eloquently disproving the old romantic fallacy that a composer’s music was little more than a reflection of his state of mind).

Mozart’s attempt to improve his family’s situation during this difficult summer is clearly apparent in the “minor” works he was composing along with the three symphonies. They are all either educational pieces, which could serve students well, or small and easy compositions that might be expected to have a good sale when published. But it is hardly likely that Mozart would have composed three whole symphonies at a time when he was in desperate financial straits if he didn’t have some hope of using them in a practical way to support his family. His first letter to Puchberg referred to “concerts in the Casino,” from which he hoped to obtain subscription money in order to repay his debts. Probably he wrote all three of the symphonies with the aim of introducing them at his own concerts. But, as far as we know, the concerts never took place. We can only be grateful that the symphonies were composed in any case.

Clarinets were relatively new in the symphony orchestra (although long since a standard component of Mozart’s opera orchestra), and it was by no means a foregone conclusion that they would be included. Mozart’s choice of clarinets instead of oboes produces a gentler woodwind sonority especially appropriate to the autumnal lyricism of Symphony No. 39.

The first movement opens with a stately slow introduction with dotted rhythms providing a nervous background for scale figures (which recur in the body of the movement), culminating in a grindingly dissonant appoggiatura. Just as we seem about to settle onto the dominant, ready to begin the Allegro, the activity decelerates and we are confronted with a stark, hushed chromatic figure recalling some of the “uncanny” moments in Don Giovanni. The melodic line of the introduction only comes to a close in the opening phrase of the smiling allegro theme in the violins (with echoes in horns and bassoons), a calm pastoral scene following the tension of the preceding passage. The development section is one of the shortest in any Mozart symphony, never moving far afield harmonically. Following a passage on the nearby key of A‑flat, a vigorous modulation seems to be leading to C minor, but at the last moment a wonderful woodwind extension brings it around to the home key and ushers in the recapitulation.

The slow movement, in A‑flat, opens with deceptive simplicity; it is, in fact, a richly detailed movement, with progressive elaborations of the material throughout. Among these delicious moments are the woodwind additions to the main theme in the strings at the recapitulation. The main theme ends with a momentary turn to the minor just before the cadence; at the corresponding point in the recapitulation, this generates a surprising but completely logical passage in C‑flat minor (written, however, as B minor) before the imitative woodwind theme returns in the tonic.

The hearty minuet provides a strong contrast to the delicacies of the Andante; its Trio features a clarinet solo with little echoes from the flute.

The finale is often called the most Haydnesque movement Mozart ever wrote, largely because it is nearly monothematic. The principal theme, beginning with a group of scurrying sixteenth‑notes followed by a hiccup, produces a series of motives that carry the bulk of the discourse. The scurrying turn appears alone or in combinations, turning to unexpected keys after a sudden silence; the “hiccup” often comes as a separate response from the woodwinds to the rushing figure in the strings.

© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)